2017-11-22 / Voice at the Shore

Wildwood’s Beth Judah to be part of photo exhibition of “exceptional synagogues”

Voice shore editor

Photographer Louis Davidson took this photo of Beth Judah’s interior for his photographic collection of synagogues worldwide. “If you just sit in the synagogue, in that space, everything in the world looks better,” said Beth Judah president Karen Burke. Photographer Louis Davidson took this photo of Beth Judah’s interior for his photographic collection of synagogues worldwide. “If you just sit in the synagogue, in that space, everything in the world looks better,” said Beth Judah president Karen Burke. Karen Burke, president of Beth Judah Temple in Wildwood, wasn’t quite sure what to think when she got a call from photographer Louis Davidson, who asked her for permission to photograph the small synagogue for a photographic exhibit of “exceptional synagogues around the world” at the Museum of the Jewish People (Beit Hatfutsot) in Tel Aviv.

“I thought I was being played!” said Burke, who wasn’t sure why her synagogue had been chosen to be part of Synagogues 360, a photographic collection of synagogues from all over the world. “I still can’t figure out how they found out about us!”

After researching Synagogues 360, seeing Davidson was legit, and that Beth Judah would not have to pay to be part of the museum collection, Burke gave the OK. “I told him we could use the PR!” she laughed.

Built in the early 1900s, when Jewish life thrived in Wildwood, Beth Judah Temple has struggled to boost its membership in recent years. With few Jews now living in Wildwood and the surrounding towns, the 100-year-old synagogue hangs on as the only active synagogue remaining in Cape May County, and has expanded its role to serve as a center for Jewish learning and culture for all area residents.

This profile is in line with many of the other 600 synagogues worldwide that are part of Synagogue 360 so far, said Davidson.

“We’re doing this for posterity,” said Davidson, an architect from Tulsa, OK, who now travels around the world with his wife photographing synagogues. The couple actively seeks out synagogues old and new, with vibrant or unusual stories, with the goal of preserving the synagogue before it one day disappears. “We think one day these photographs will be very important,” he noted.

“All over the world there are synagogues that have died out and disappeared,” Davidson explained. “The average life of a synagogue in the United States is only 50 years because of the kind of migrations that go on here.”

In his home town of Tulsa, for example, the Jewish population has shrunk to almost half of what it was when he grew up there, because his daughter and others of her generation went away to college and never came back. “This is common,” he noted.

The Davidsons came up with the idea for Synagogues 360 after visiting Sighet, Romania, the hometown of Davidson’s father-in-law (which is also the birthplace of Elie Wiesel) in 2003. There and in other Eastern European towns the couple visited, they saw historic, beautiful synagogues that were falling apart, “degenerating from lack of Jews and lack of money.”

Deeply upset, the couple decided to do something about the loss of these buildings. “We decided these buildings should be photographically preserved. We got sick of having our history erased.”

The Davidsons, whose work is a self-funded labor of love, started by photographing synagogues throughout Eastern Europe, then moved on to Western Europe. Since then, they have also photographed synagogues in North America, Asia, and many other parts of the world.

Pictures of all of the synagogues photographed are archived and displayed at Synagogues360.org. The Davidsons also wanted to create a permanent museum exhibit and collection. After contacting many museums, they ultimately came up with an arrangement with The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, which agreed to save the photos in perpetuity.

Still to be added to this photographic collection are synagogues from Israel, Africa, Mexico and Central America. South America is not on the list; after the bombing of a Jewish Center is Buenos Aires years ago, it’s very difficult to get permission to photograph the synagogues there, “so they are going to remain un-photographed,” said Davidson.

They also photographed what Davidson said is the oldest synagogue building still standing, which is now a church-owned and operated museum in Toledo, Spain.

“The church makes a lot of money off of this property,” said Davidson, a building that “was taken from the Jews in the Inquisition. It was very hard to get permission to take pictures.”

In North America, the Davidsons photographed many frontier synagogues, built by Jewish merchants who came to town to serve the ranchers and prospectors who first settled the area. Davidson recalled one such town—Ottumwa, Iowa— where the main street was referred to as “Jew Street” due to the many Jewish merchants who set up shop there. South Jersey came onto the Davidsons’ radar only recently. The couple had photographed synagogues associated with several agricultural communities that were set up on the East Coast for Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s. Davidson learned that one such community also existed in South Jersey, and went on Google to search for it.

Ironically, he did not find the synagogue that he was likely looking for—the Brotherhood Synagogue in Woodbine. That synagogue has since been converted into the Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage. Run by Stockton University, the museum tells the story of the Jewish agricultural community that once existed in Woodbine, and offers tours of the fully restored former Brotherhood Synagogue sanctuary, built in 1893.

Instead of the Brotherhood Synagogue, Davidson found Beth Judah in Wildwood. Captivated by its 1920s architecture, he decided to make the trip to see if it was worth photographing. “We don’t know until we get to a synagogue if it’s going to be a good place to photograph, if it’s going to be in good condition,” he explained. “Sometimes you get there and find it’s been remodeled.”

Beth Judah was definitely worth the trip, he said. The interior was impressive—“beautiful and maintained in its original form.”

Burke, who attended Beth Judah’s photo session, was thrilled but not surprised that Davidson “remarked on the wonderful condition of our synagogue.” She also wasn’t surprised that he remarked on its peaceful atmosphere. “If you just sit in the synagogue, in that space, everything in the world looks better. It makes you feel like you can breathe, that things will be OK.”

To see all of Davidson’s synagogue photos go to Synagogues.org. 

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